New Teachings

by Haviv Rettig Gur

I read Seth Cohen’s ruminations on innovation with great interest. I share many of his concerns and I was happy to be given the chance to respond.

I cannot speak to the measurements of innovation or the business-modeling of sustainability, because I do not understand these issues. But I can offer a warning from the sidelines about a world of innovation that stands the risk of mistaking its structure for its content.

My brother heads an R&D team in a successful high-tech company headquartered outside Tel Aviv. He loves it – the creativity, the wrestling with intractable knots of programming that suddenly come undone in a moment of inspiration, the competition with a worldwide community of clever programmers.

But though he is enmeshed in one of the most innovative subcultures on Earth – Israeli high-tech R&D needs no introduction in New York, Paris or Delhi – he correctly views his work as the development of structure, not content.

Technological innovation is about the new idea itself, about developing it quickly and marketing it well. The product is temporary, a new model on the way to an even newer one, and it is the system that is exciting.

As such, it is precisely the wrong model on which to found a subculture of Jewish communal innovation. In Jewish communal life, a new idea has to be judged on how it contributes to or meaningfully challenges the preexisting communal identity, spirituality and organization. Unlike the high-tech sector, Jewish society does not exist to sell itself. We are a community of content, a vast ancient bookshelf that creates and sustains individual journeys of meaning, entire communities and, in one case, a whole national identity.

There is a real fear that the world of whizz-bang 21st century Jewish start-ups are, to borrow a phrase, a mile wide but an inch deep. Seth Cohen cites the discovery that just 2.9% of startups surveyed identify as social service organizations. Compare this to the multi-billion-dollar federation tzedaka system on which hundreds of thousands of poor and needy depend, or to the most influential Jewish lobby in Washington, the one dealing with welfare and poverty, and you begin to see that there may be too much glitter in the innovation ecosystem.

It is important not to overreach either in praise or criticism. I personally know some deep, committed and rooted social innovators who are seeking new expressions for old ideas and identities. At its best, community life is a tense standoff between free association and creativity on the one hand and steady umbrella bodies and traditional identities on the other.

Radicals, especially young ones, can be like oxygen to the communal lungs. But they must be challenged to excel. In Jewish terms, excellence is not in clever networking. It is in new content, new education.

It can be useful to understand the Jewish world in the way the Talmudic Sages liked to do, as a colossal, multi-pronged education system, a world of learning and debate that is so rich, so varied, so persistent that it constitutes a unique transnational culture all its own. It is an education system whose classrooms include everything from a family’s shared spiritual life to social volunteerism and actual schools. Innovation is built into this world because debate is fundamental to its behavior.

So as we explore business models for sustainability, we have to remember that Jewish life is not a business. Sustainability does not depend on sales, but on the ability to incorporate new ideas into communal public life in a way that enriches that life. It’s about culture, not economy, about content, not structure.

Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that sustainable innovation requires that foundations, federations and donors have a duty to ask innovators and aspiring grantees a fundamental question: What is the educational value of their work? What do they have to teach?

Haviv Rettig Gur is an Israel based correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. Specializing in issues of the Jewish world, Haviv was recently awarded a Certificate of Merit for “excellence in Diaspora reportage” from the The B’nai B’rith World Center in Israel.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Post.